A SURGE in littering has been a miserable side effect of restrictions easing during the pandemic. Newspapers and social media are regularly filled with images of parks, streets and beauty spots engulfed in harmful and unsightly waste. Wales had already faced a litter problem before Covid-19 but the pandemic seems to have exacerbated it.

However, an antidote to this has been an increase in citizens litter-picking in their local areas. Every city, town and village across the nation is likely to have its own litter heroes. The National meets four people who dedicate a huge chunk of their spare time to keeping our environment clean and tidy...

Brecon Beacons National Park

Michael Butterfield co-ordinates the Llangattock Litterpickers, a group which was set up in 2009. Volunteers help to regularly clean more than 275 miles of roadside verges and country lanes across the four counties of Powys, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen and Monmouthshire, which lie within the eastern end of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

“There is so much fantastic work going on. Our volunteers work hard litter-picking a huge area and we are now in maintenance mode because we deal with the problem regularly.

“As well as litter-picking, we deal with fly-tipping too. We’ve recently been doing a 40-tonne fly-tip clearance in a quarry within the Brecon Beacons National Park. Given the terrain, we needed a helicopter to help lift the recovered material and it wasn’t exactly cheap at £2,200 for 75 minutes of lifting.

The National Wales: Llangattock Litterpickers are currently helping to clear 40 tonnes of fly-tipping from a quarry.Llangattock Litterpickers are currently helping to clear 40 tonnes of fly-tipping from a quarry.

“Despite all that, there’s no greater feeling than when you’ve cleared a stretch of roadside, and you drive past it afterwards, it’s clean.

“The people who think we can enforce this though, I say to them, ‘get a reality’. If you think in the likes of rural Wales, somewhere like Powys which is a quarter of the landmass of Wales, that enforcement is the be all and end all in terms of reducing litter, then you’re delirious. You can’t have a regime of enforcement in an area like this. You can threaten to fine them hundreds or thousands of pounds and it’s not a deterrent because you can’t police it.

Michael is an advocate of a ‘deposit return scheme’, which is used across the world to encourage more people to recycle drinks containers. Anyone who buys a drink is charged a small deposit for the bottle or can that it comes in. They get this money back when they return the bottle or can to a collection point to be recycled.

“I’m very clear that we will never have a litter-free society,” says Michael. “I’m very clear as well that we need some policy intervention from the Welsh Government through something like the deposit return scheme.

“The deposit return scheme is due to go live in Scotland in July 2022. Why is Wales being left behind?”

Pembrokeshire

If you’ve ever ventured onto the seafront at Saundersfoot at sunrise, then you’re likely to have spotted the silhouette of Jules O’Shea armed with her bag. Jules cleans her local patch on a daily basis in all seasons and has declared a personal war on discarded cigarette butts. During the tourism off-season, she mostly deals with debris washing in via the sea but during high season, the volume of dropped litter she encounters increases exponentially.

“I’ve litter-picked ever since I could walk because I’ve always lived by the sea,” says Jules. “Perhaps I’d find the odd packet of crisps blowing here and there on the beach and then I’d pick it up. I remember as a kid being warned about the dangers of those rings that hold cans together, and how they could be dangerous to wildlife.

“In terms of the volume of plastic that we’re seeing now though, it’s the last 10 years that things have really ramped up. All of a sudden there’d be more bits of fishing rope washing up or plastic bottles to the point where now we’re deluged with the stuff every time the tide comes in.

“A few years ago, I discovered the Two Minute Beach Clean organisation and the work that they do. The momentum of that has turned me into a complete beach cleaning geek.

“When litter washes in on the tide and I remove it from the beach in order to dispose of it correctly, I feel happy and satisfied. But when it’s dropped litter, it drives me absolutely insane.

“This year and last year has been appalling. I don’t remember the summer of 2019 being this awful for litter. And with the cigarette butts, I feel like I’m flogging a dead horse. I pick up discarded plastic pint pots and I’m able to fill one to two of those every single day in Saundersfoot. It is vile.

“Quite honestly, a deposit return scheme cannot come soon enough. When we went to Cyprus the year before last, there was such a scheme in place at the top of the beach. You put your bottles or cans in to a machine, and you got five cents back I think, or you could push a button to give the money to a marine charity. That kind of a scheme should be a no-brainer for us in Wales.”

Gwynedd

Nikki Sears picks litter in and around the Dwyryd estuary near Maentwrog. She has been running a campsite for the past 19 years and has become accustomed to picking up other people’s rubbish as a result.

“I litter pick because I can’t bear to see it and I worry about the animals it may potentially kill,” explains Nikki. “Also because I live in a beautiful area, I don’t want to see it spoilt, and I feel in some small way I am making a difference to the state of the world.

“Our campsite is bordered on one side by the river and on the other side by the road. Lots of farm rubbish and period products come down the river regularly and I’ve always picked that stuff up. I also got into cleaning our local beaches after seeing an Instagram post on the Snowdonia Beach Clean account when they first started up in November 2018. I immediately began attending their group clean-ups and I was blown away by the lovely sense of community spirit from everyone who turned up. But I was also horrified by the amounts of debris and fishing waste found on our local beaches.

“Snowdonia Beach Clean can draw in groups of between 30 to 70 beach cleaners, but I also pick up litter on a regular basis on my own or in small groups of two or three friends.

“I do think litter has gotten worse generally over the last few years and in particular since the pandemic. I think more and more people are heading to the beach or wild spaces to find a break from their normal lives, and sadly not all of those care about how they leave the place.

“I feel optimistic that there are a lot of people out there who do care and who are doing their best. But I don’t feel optimistic that governments and big business are doing enough or that they care enough to change their ways. Which is why we hold a lot of the power in terms of how we choose to spend our money and who we vote for.”

Cardiff

The Pentwyn and Llanedeyrn Pickers are one of the hardest-working groups in urban Wales. They document the sheer volume of what they pick up from their local area day by day on Instagram. Barbara Wilcox helped found the group in early 2016 and spends about 20 hours each week clearing up other people’s mess.

“We find all sorts around here, let me tell you,” says Barbara. “The most common things we find are the obvious culprits such as takeaway containers, bottles and cans. But we often find things like condoms and dirty pants too, which is depressing. Nitrous oxide canisters are a huge problem as well, and sometimes we find hundreds of those in one go, but fortunately we have found a way to recycle them locally which is a small consolation.

“Before Covid, we were keeping on top of it because we were out all the time picking as a group. But then the pandemic started and it’s just gotten worse since then.

“Some people just don’t care. And usually I’m really upbeat because it makes me feel good to leave my local area tidy. But now and again, the scale of it really hits me and I get despondent. But I’ll be honest about how I’m feeling on Instagram and our followers will help to pick me up and I’ll start to feel positive again.

“I think a deposit return scheme is a great idea because if the litterers didn’t take their bottles and cans back then I definitely would. And I tell you one thing, if that happened, I would be incredibly rich!”

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.

Welsh Water is sponsoring The National's first Environmental Awards, which will celebrate the best green practices and climate-action projects across Wales.

The awards will shine a spotlight on the individuals, companies and organisations doing outstanding work to protect the environment and tackle climate change.

Find more information on the criteria and how to nominate here

The National Wales: